Digging Up the Past

Collaborating with people from all fields of study breaks down long-existing archaeological paradigms.

By Dr. Richard Terry

Faculty and students that participated in this collaboration
Left to right: Dr. Richard Terry, BYU; Dr. Jay Silverstein, Penn State; Ryan Sweetwood, undergraduate, BYU; Richard Burnett, M.S. student, BYU;
Dr. Tim Murhta, Penn State; Kirk Straight, Ph.D. student, Penn State.

What started out as a convenient collaboration between Dr. Richard Terry, professor of soil science at BYU, and a group of BYU archaeologists, soon became a groundbreaking discovery. Trough the combined efforts of Dr. Terry, Dr. Bruce Dahlin from Howard University, their students, and archaeologists from around the world, they were able to disprove the long-held belief that the Maya depended on the elite class to tax and redistribute their food and other goods.

After receiving a collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation, Terry and his students met up with Bruce Dahlin and his students at the huge Maya site of Chunchucmil in northwest Yucatán in 2001. Dahlin and his students focused on the excavation of the commoners’ homes. They expected to find simple artifacts associated with the impoverished lives of commoners, but that was not what they found. The artifacts from the common households included beautifully carved clay pots, polychrome pottery, and jade jewelry, all thought to be exclusively elite items. The ancient residents of Chunchucmil did not fit the anthropological paradigm of a poor commoner class supported by wealthy elites in a system of “tribute and redistribution.” This paradigm had been around since the Marxist writings of Karl Polanyi in the 1940s. According to the tribute and redistribution paradigm, the Maya did not have the need to buy and sell goods, therefore there could be no marketplaces. Irrefutable evidence would be required to alter the accepted paradigm.

 Chris Jensen sampling the marketplace
Former graduate student Chris Jensen, BYU, sampling the marketplace

Dahlin showed the BYU soil scientists a large 2-hectare plaza at the site center that looked suspiciously like a marketplace. Surrounded by four anciently paved causeways or “highways,” the plaza also contained amenities needed for large gatherings, including a well and a ballcourt where the sacred ballgame was played. Dahlin lamented the fact that his “marketplace” plaza lacked the convincing artifact evidence needed to prove the existence of ancient marketplaces among the Maya. Chris Jensen, then one of Terry’s graduate students, was quick to suggest that they sample the plaza floor and analyze it for the invisible chemical evidence of human activities. The team of archaeologists and soil scientists were pleasantly surprised to find high levels of soil phosphate in parallel lines across the site, the first convincing evidence that food materials had been marketed there.

One of the benefits of collaborative research is that the thinking of researchers from other disciplines is not confined to rigid paradigms. The soil chemical evidence of ancient marketplace activities was embraced by archaeologists who were glad to be free of the tribute and redistribution paradigm. Dahlin and Terry collaborated in the publication of the marketplace study that included soil chemical data from both Chunchucmil and from a contemporary open-air marketplace in Antigua, Guatemala. BYU scientists have just completed soil chemical investigations of ancient human activities at eight different plazas and open spaces at the archaeological sites of Coba and Kiuic in Mexico and Caracol in Belize. They collaborated in the marketplace study with archaeologists and geographers from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia de Mexico, Tulane University, the University of Kentucky, the University of South Florida, and Millsaps College.

Years ago, Dr. Eliot Butler, professor of chemistry and then associate academic vice president of BYU, delivered a university forum speech entitled, “Everybody is Ignorant, Only on Different Subjects.” Researchers often need the expertise of others to work through academic questions. Each member of an academic collaboration brings knowledge and abilities to the research. Faculty and students collaborate to accomplish research objectives. Students benefit from the knowledge and experience of the professor and in turn the research benefits from the ideas and talents of the student.

Without the collaboration of senior archaeologists and soil scientists, the paradigm would not have been challenged and scientists would still be in the dark about the ancient Maya marketplace. Dahlin was nearing retirement, and Terry, as a soil scientist, had nothing to lose by thinking outside the box. In the past five years, archaeologists have published several books and journal articles on the ancient Maya marketplace and the market economy. Because of these collaborative efforts, the new marketplace paradigm is widely accepted and a new way of thinking about the lives of the Maya has been established.

Recently, Terry and his students have also begun studying the ancient agricultural resources and cropping practices of the Maya. They are currently participating in a National Science Foundation collaborative research grant with Pennsylvania State University to discover the ancient cornfields of the Maya at the site of Tikal in Guatemala. Plant and Wildlife Sciences graduate student Chris Balzotti used the physical, chemical, and carbon isotope data from more than 700 soil samples collected around Tikal to develop an ecological niche model of the areas used by ancient Maya farmers to grow corn crops. The computer model of ancient corn agriculture was recently published in the International Journal of Remote Sensing. The model demonstrated that the soils on the margins of expansive wetlands surrounding Tikal were important areas for growing corn and other crops that sustained the Maya population. BYU soil scientists and Pennsylvania State University collaborators will return to Tikal in May 2014 to gather additional soils to determine if the wetland soils were also used in ancient corn production.


Photos courtesy of Dr. Richard Terry